Saturday, July 01, 2006

Post No. 74: Rethinking Race Relations

“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion…”

We Singaporeans, as far as I can see, have always took pride in the idea that our society is one that is multiracial in nature yet harmonious. Many of us feel proud that our society is one in which there exists mutual respect, tolerance & common understanding amongst all the races; that evils such as racial discrimination and communal conflicts no longer rear their ugly heads but are rather relegated to the “bad old days”. We perceive our society as an oasis sheltered away from the racial violence & ethnic tensions that still occur in other parts of the world.

However, in reality, are things as perfect or rosy as they seem? Or have we been taken in by a beautiful façade? Do strong undercurrents exist beneath this seemingly placid surface?

I, for one, will admit that, like most of my peers who have gone through the local educations system, I have always assumed that our society is one in which factors such as race, language and religion no longer divided people. In fact, looking back, I would not be faraway from the truth if I tell you all that I somewhat took racial harmony for granted. Yet, as I grew older, I realised that, if we looked more closely, the state of race relations here in Singapore is not as rosy as it appears to be. I mean, if things are really that harmonious, will our political leaders (including the eminent MM Lee) still think that the GRC system is necessary to ensure minority representation in Parliament because, according to MM Lee, if there was no GRC system, Singaporeans would then vote along communal lines or that if housing quotas based on ethnicity are abolished, Singaporeans will start to segregate themselves into communal enclaves? Also, need I remind you all about the recent incidents of racist bloggers or the “racist” remark made by an undergraduate at a ministerial forum last year?

To me, it would seem that most of us have come to misperceive the lack of open & public racial conflicts as being equivalent of racial harmony. Yes, undoubtedly, the absence of racial conflict is a part of racial harmony in a society but racial harmony cannot be completely equated to a mere lack of racial conflict. To borrow an example from what I have learnt in History, although there were no outright direct conflicts (except perhaps for the Cuban Missile Crisis) between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, we surely cannot characterise the bilateral relations between these 2 superpowers as harmonious, can we? My point is that for us to say that true racial harmony have been achieved here in Singapore, there needs to be more than just an absence of open racial conflicts. What we need also is to have a deeper level of meaningful interaction & understanding amongst the various races found here in Singapore. Call me pessimistic but it is my opinion that the current level of interaction & understanding between the different races here, despite having seen much improvement from the “bad old days”, remains, on the overall, somewhat superficial.

This means that we all need to go beyond just enjoying the cuisine of a racial group different from ours or to dress up in one another’s ethnic costume while celebrating Racial Harmony Day (otherwise known as “International Friendship Day”) in school. It means that we need to put in more effort into trying to learn and understand the culture of racial groups different from ours and to welcome them, if not teach them, to learn about our culture. It also means that we not only tolerate but also respect the practices of the various races here in Singapore.

Yes, you all may dispute that such a level of meaningful interaction & understanding is already present between the various races here in Singapore. Hmm… Okay, let me ask you all now, what’s the difference between Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji? Do you all know that besides the festivals of Deepavali (which, in case you all are not aware yet, is not the Indian New Year) and Thaipusam, Indians here also celebrate the festival of Pongal (I, for one, will admit that I did not know of this till when I was in JC) or that this festival is celebrated to give thanks to an abundant harvest? And who amongst you all are aware of the significance behind the Chinese festival of “Dong Zhi” (冬至)? What we do know is nearly always eclipsed by what we do not know.

Also, be honest now, although you all may have some friends & acquaintances that belong to other races, how many of them would you call as your close friends? Furthermore, think about it, what proportion of your close friends are from other races in comparison to those that are of the same race as you? In addition, though most of us may have neighbours of other races, how well do we know these neighbours? Have we ever visited their homes or invited them to visit ours?

In addition, though all of us hate to admit it, it may be observed that there exists perhaps a visceral/instinctive tendency in us to feel closer to those who exhibit similar physical characteristics as us than those whom appear physically different from us. This is despite the fact that these physical differences between ourselves and other races are but superficial differences. I say that such differences are only superficial because regardless of what skin colour we may have, the blood which flows through our veins is still nonetheless red in colour (and in case you all are not aware yet, scientists have discovered that, genetically wise, we humans are much more alike than we are different). In answer to those who would dispute the assertion that we feel closer to those who physically appear similar to us (in other words, those who are of the same race as us), I would ask this question: imagine that you all are at a very crowded foodcourt, holding on to a heavy tray of food and there are only 2 empty seats left; one is at a table occupied by people of the same race as you while the other is at a table occupied by people of a different race, which table would you all prefer to sit down at?

In the end, what we need to recognise is that while our current state of inter-racial relations is much better than in the “bad old days” and in other countries, there still remains much room for improvement.

However, we should take great care that in our quest to foster a better state of inter-racial relations, we do not attempt to achieve complete racial integration/assimilation. In other words, we should not attempt to replace each race’s attachment to their respective racial identity with that of a common national identity. That, in my opinion, would be near to impossible to achieve and counterproductive. The attachment to one’s racial identity in every person is perhaps something so strong and so ingrained that should we attempt to remove it, we would only most likely encounter a most negative response and perhaps even provoke people to become even more attached to their racial identity. And how would we go about defining and creating a common national identity? On what foundation are we to base this common identity on? I mean, if an ex-superpower like the Soviet Union was unsuccessful in its attempt to create a new “race” of Soviet men & women, what chance of success do we have if we attempt to eliminate racial identities and to substitute them with a common national identity?

In addition, it would be unwise for us to pretend that racial differences, though they may be only superficial differences, do not exist. These differences, though superficial, will not disappear just because we pretend that they do not exist. Just look at what have happened in France. There, it is somehow believed that by not recognising the concept of “race” and that by calling everyone who lives in France as French, everyone would forget their race and be only French citizens. Yet, as it can be seen from the recent riots by French Muslim youths (most of who are or are descended from immigrant families), though the French government attempts to create a fiction of “everyone who lives in France is French”, the reality is that differences still remain between the French people of European origins and those whom are not. Thus, it would be much wiser for us to recognise the superficial differences between different races but to also look beyond them and focus more in the similarities that we, regardless of what race we may be from, all share.

I would also like to point out to all of you that it would do no good for us to become too politically-correct over issues regarding race. We need to understand that there is a difference between making remarks that may provoke racial tensions and having a healthy discussion on inter-racial issues. It would be most detrimental for us all if, fearing that we may upset the current state of inter-racial relations and/or being mistaken for being racist, we choose to not talk about inter-racial issues, whatever they may be, but leave them to linger unresolved. Just as the differences between different races would not disappear because we pretend that they do not exist, inter-racial issues would not disappear or resolve themselves automatically if we do not talk about them. Also, though inter-racial issues may be somewhat serious issues, we should not be so serious about them (to the extent of being too serious?) that inter-racial relations become strained and “artificial” (hopefully, you all understand what I mean by this). Though, of course, we nonetheless need to be vigilant against those who have ulterior motives of their own when talking about inter-racial issues. That said, discussion about issues regarding race should not, as perceptively pointed out by Warren Fernandez (Foreign Editor of the Straits Times), be labelled as “Out-of-bounds” but rather as “Handle With Care”.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my point on how, with regards to inter-racial relations here in Singapore, there remains still room for improvement. But we need to be realistic about how this improvement is to be made and how much improvement there can be; we should not overdo things (or to put it in Mandarin: “我们不该矫枉过正。”). As Mr. Chua Chim Kang (蔡深江), Associate Editor of “MyPaper” (《我报》) has cannily observed, like a delicate vase, it is perhaps impossible for us to change the fragile nature of inter-racial relations, what we can do is to prevent damage being done to the “vase” by placing it in a safe place. And, in the end, perhaps, we need to remember that, no matter what race we may be from, we are all still part of one great race – the human race.

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